WISP Market Gains Momentum Amid Regulatory Efforts

The Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA), a membership organization that promotes the development, advancement and unity of the wireless ISP industry, has been stepping up its lobbying and advocacy efforts for its membership, a collection of operators that began by bringing broadband to rural and underserved areas where true broadband wasn’t available from the local copper-based telco.

Today’s WISPA members are finding a new dawn for the industry, according to WISPA president Chuck Hogg. Hogg noted that as a benchmark it was worth noting that this month’s WISPA-palooza event in Las Vegas drew 1,000+ attendees, 93 exhibitors and 135+ speakers—the largest turnout the event has had to date.

“Overall, the show itself was a big success,” said Hogg, a WISP owner himself. “But it’s indicative of the success of the industry, because there’s been a lot of growth and maturity just in the past 18 months. There are many more WISPs that are growing their business faster than ever, and into new markets.”

The biggest change in the industry is the emergence of lower-cost equipment that offers performance and reliability equal to fiber or cable access. That has enabled WISPs—typically smaller operators with limited budgets—to add to their networks and expand into new lines of business, he said.

One key new area is multi-dwelling units like apartments, college campuses and office buildings that aren’t served by fiber in suburban and urban areas. His own company, Shelby Broadband in Simpsonville, Ky., operates in both rural and urban markets. It has 3,500 subscribers in rural Kentucky, but also operates a commercial urban network in downtown New Orleans, where it offers point-to-point applications for commercial buildings.

“We are really seeing the commercial space start to heat up for the WISP play,” Hogg noted. “Fixed wireless offers a fast time-to-market, and the cost for high-capacity access has dramatically decreased because of better equipment coming to market, so we can now be highly competitive with the fiber companies.” He added, “MDU and commercial apps in urban markets is consequently where a lot of the significant growth has been, even though five years ago hardly anyone was operating in commercial or urban markets.”

On the advocacy front, WISPA continues to fight for more share of the airwaves.

“We are in front of the FCC, constantly fighting to get access to additional unlicensed spectrum,” Hogg said. “Access to more spectrum means the ability to provide more high-bandwidth applications to more customers.”

In particular, WISPA is urging the FCC to quickly open 100 MHz of spectrum in the 3.5MHz band, and to open up more access to TV white space spectrum.

“TV white spaces could be really important,” Hogg said. “That spectrum would allow us to provide access to un-served rural markets where residences are hidden by trees or other challenging terrain.”

TV white spaces, which are frequency bands once occupied by TV broadcast but now vacated by the move to digital television—are considered prime real estate for supporting mobile broadband and machine-to-machine (M2M) communications outside of the typical—and scarce—3G and 4G bands. They offer attractive propagation attributes, such as the ability to travel over longer distances and penetrate more obstacles such as trees, hills and buildings than technologies using higher frequencies, including conventional Wi-Fi.

The FCC, being unlicensed, knows that white spaces offer the opportunity to roll out low-cost broadband in underserved areas.

California ISP Cal.Net launched a consumer white space broadband service in California’s Gold Country region, which features challenging, hilly terrain, delivering 2–4Mbps internet to residents. However, white spaces tend to be adjacent to operating broadcast frequencies, and are often used for local unlicensed applications in any given market.

This has raised the question of how to avoid interference and potential local broadcast degradation—the answer to which is to create databases of which channels are occupied by which services, against which any new service must be checked.

Several providers have offered to take up the database chore, including Google and Telcordia (both are approved). Key Bridge Global meanwhile finished a database trial in April, but is still awaiting FCC approval.

Nonetheless, the FCC has been slow-moving in ramping up white space allocation and use. And finally, Hogg said that WISPA is dedicating efforts to make sure that the Connect America fund—earmarked for operators that will bridge the digital divide—is designed in such a way to give WISPs a fair shake. WISPs, he noted, should have fair access to applying for those public-private funding from Connect America and other National Broadband Plan initiatives.

“We want to ensure that we can operate competitively against the big ILECs, who are trying to discredit our industry,” Hogg said. “Some Tier 1s are trying to get Connect America funding to bring service to places where we already operate, and where we’ve built out networks that were unfunded by the government.” WISPA can’t do it alone, he added.

He urged wireless ISPs everywhere to make their local and state politicians aware of their businesses. “Local and state representatives often aren’t aware of these companies and how they operate in rural and under-served markets—and they’ve always been forgotten,” Hogg said. “But advocacy at the state level will push uphill to the federal level, and that rising tide will be crucial for the industry.”